When I was a kid I was very outgoing in putting up displays for the holidays — Memorial Day, Christmas, the Fourth of July. I liked the flags, the lights, the stuff. It was cool to make a big splash. But as I grew up I grew out of it, and today I don’t go much for things like that. I don’t have a flag to fly on national holidays, and the most I’ll do for Christmas is a wreath on the door because it has good memories and the scent of pine is rare in subtropical Florida.
I suppose it has something to do with my Quaker notions of shunning iconography — outward symbols can’t show how you truly feel about something on the inside — and more often than not they are used to make up for the lack of a true belief. This is also true of patriotism: waving the flag — or wrapping yourself in it — is a poor and false measure of how you truly feel about your country.
There’s an old saying that there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. As Benjamin Franklin noted, no country had ever been formed because of an idea. But when the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1776 and passed the resolution embodied in the Declaration of Independence, that was what was being done: create a nation not based on geographical boundaries, property, tribalism, or religion, but on the idea of forming a new government to replace the present form because the rulers were incompetent, uncaring, and cruel. The American Revolution wasn’t so much a rebellion as it was a cry for attention. Most of the Declaration is a punch-list, if you will, of grievances both petty and grand against the Crown, and once the revolution was over and the new government was formed, the Constitution contained many remedies to prevent the slights and injuries inflicted under colonialism: the Bill of Rights is a direct response to many of the complaints listed in the Declaration.
But the Declaration of Independence goes beyond complaints. Its preamble is a mission statement. It proclaims our goals and what we hope to achieve. No nation had ever done that before, and to this day we are still struggling to achieve life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness goes on with no sign of let-up.
That is the true glory of America. Not that we complain — and we do — but that we work to fix those complaints. To put them right. To make things better than they were. To give hope to people who feel that they have no voice, and to assure that regardless of who they are, where they come from, what they look like, who they love, or what they believe, there will be room for them to grow, do, and become whatever it is that they have the capacity to be. It’s a simple idea, but the simplest ideas often have the most powerful impact.
This nation has achieved many great things. We’ve inspired other nations and drawn millions to our shores not to just escape their own country but to participate in what we’re doing. And we’ve made mistakes. We’ve blundered and fumbled and bullied and injured. We’ve treated some of our own citizens with contempt, and shown the same kind of disregard for the rights of others that we enumerated in our own Declaration of Independence. We have been guilty of arrogance and hypocrisy. But these are all human traits, and we are, after all, human. The goal of government is to rise above humanity, and the goal of humanity is to strive for perfection. So if we stumble on the road to that goal, it is only because we are moving forward.
I love this country not for what it is but for what it could be. In my own way I show my patriotism not by waving a flag from my front porch but by working to make things work in our system and by adding to the discussion that will bring forth ideas to improve our lives and call into question the ideas of others. It is all a part of what makes the simple idea of life, liberty, and that elusive happiness so compelling and so inspiring, and what makes me very proud to be a part of this grand experiment.
Photo: The Avenue in the Rain by Frederick Childe Hassam 1917.
[This post originally appeared on July 4, 2005.]